I am the Messenger & You are the Message

In 2009 I became interested in studying sociology. I found sociology to be an exhilarating subject that challenged the way I looked at the social world. It helped me obliterate my preconceived notions and it allowed me to see the world differently than what I was used to. Specifically, sociology is defined as,

The study of human groups and societies, giving particular emphasis to analysis of the industrialized world. Sociology is one of a group of social sciences, which include anthropology, economics, political science, and human geography. The divisions between the various social sciences are not clear-cut, and all share a certain range of common interests, concepts, and methods (Giddens, 2007, p. A14).

With all of this in mind, the methods used in sociology also changed the way I looked at stories. Many people may not believe this, but understanding qualitative methods used in sociology can help storytellers.

A perfect example that supports sociologists is ethnography. Ethnography is defined as, “the first hand study of people using participant observation or interviewing” (Giddens, 2007, p.38). Ethnography is one of the many research methods that sociologists use to tell stories about their participants. Two of the biggest strengths of using ethnography is that it produces richer and more in-depth material as well as providing a larger knowledge of social processes (Giddens, 2007, p.39)

An anthropologist named Ruth Behar states:

I came to ethnography because I wanted to be a storyteller who told stories about real people in real places. I was seduced by the notion of fieldwork, the idea of going someplace to find a story I wasn’t looking for… The beauty and mystery of the ethnographer’s quest is to find the unexpected stories, the stories that challenge our theories. Isn’t that the reason why we still go to the field?… We go to find the stories we didn’t know we were looking for in the first place. (Behar, 2003, p.16).

Going along with Behar, on March 1, 2013 Ellen Isaacs presented a speech on ethnography on TEDxBroadway. She described how ethnography helps people outside of academia solve problems in social life.

In addition, ethnography is a complex methodological practice. The most important initial step is to gain trust from her or his participants. Ethnographers must justify their presence to their participants and they must gain the cooperation of the group of people that they choose to study (Giddens, 2007, p.38).

Qualitative methods puts ethnographers in the “middle of the action”. The middle of the action is known as the field site. This is the setting where ethnographers take close observations of the people they are trying to study. Ethnographers write about other peoples’ lives in their field notes. Field notes are regarded as the data of ethnographic research (Warren, 2010, p. 107). Without field notes, ethnographers do not have the data to back up their stories. Essentially, field notes help craft the stories that are observed in the field site.

While field notes serve a significant purpose, conducting interviews serve an equal significance. According to Warren and Karner they state, “for the qualitative interviewer the interview is not only a method, it is a social interaction of the very type that qualitative methods were designed to study” (Warren, 2010, p. 151). Interviews help ethnographers learn from their participants and get their take of the interviewees’ perspective. Interviewees help ethnographers craft a story by answering questions that involve a topic that ethnographers are interested in.

Ultimately, ethnography is one of the many methodologies that assist in telling stories. Field sites, field notes, and interviews are only the tip of the iceberg for ethnography. This qualitative method goes much deeper the more it is studied. Moreover, sociology assisted me with looking at the social world alternatively, ethnography helps me tell stories from the social world. By and large, ethnographers are not the message. The people who ethnographers study have the message within their stories. Instead, ethnographers take on the role of the messengers that deliver stories to be read.

– Behar, Ruth. 2003. “Ethnography and the Book That Was Lost.” Ethnography 4 (1): 15 – 39.
– Giddens, A., Duneier, M., & Apelbaum, R. (2007). Asking and Answering Sociological Questions. Introduction to Sociology (6 ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
– Warren, C. A., & Karner, T. X. (2010). The Interview: Interaction, Talk, and Text. Discovering qualitative methods: field research, interviews, and analysis (2nd ed., ). New York: Oxford University Press.

One thought on “I am the Messenger & You are the Message

  1. Its always a good thing finding one’s passion and knowing one’s purpose. Seems with sociology you have been able to discover what works for you. Up until a few months ago I didn’t know much about the field, but a friend took an ethnography course and that opened me up to the discipline. I am fascinated by different cultures, and a field like ethnography seems like something that would interest me.


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